//Rights abuses "endemic" in South Asia -group

Rights abuses "endemic" in South Asia -group

Wed 13 Dec 2006

NEW DELHI, Dec 13 (Reuters) – Extrajudicial killings, attacks on religious and ethnic minorities and curbs on press freedom are endemic in South Asia, with Bangladesh being the worst violator, a leading regional human rights group said on Wednesday.

"Human rights violations are systemic, endemic; and torture forms part of the administration of justice," Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), told a news conference during the release of the group's 2006 report.

Rapid Action Battalions in Bangladesh, created to fight Islamic militants, were operating with "impunity" and were responsible for most of the 396 extrajudicial killings in that country in 2005, the New Delhi-based ACHR said the report.

Most of the deaths at the hands of the Rapid Action Battalions were allegedly caused by "crossfire" but the rights group called this a euphemism for execution.

The rights group also slammed Bangladesh for not doing enough to protect journalists, saying they faced attacks from armed opposition groups, state agencies and political parties.

It added two journalists were killed and 142 were wounded in attacks last year. The government says the press in the country is free to work without fear from its agencies.

Pakistan also came in for severe criticism, especially over "entrenched legal repression and cultural cruelties" that make women "excessive targets" of violence.

The ACHR said that nearly 4,400 women were victims of so-called honour killings, murders carried out ostensibly to protect a family's honour and which authorities are often reluctant to prosecute.

FAILURE TO TAKE ACTION

"Custodial rapes were widespread but the government of Pakistan failed to take effective measures," a statement by the group accompanying the report said.

India, the region's biggest country and home to several insurgencies including Kashmir, continued to report hundreds of judicial deaths both in 2004 and 2005 and had allowed attacks on minority Christians in states ruled by Hindu nationalists.

With its entrenched parliamentary democracy and free press, India was the least bad offender in terms of rights in the region, the AHCR said.

But it said Dalits — formerly "untouchables" in the Hindu caste system — continued to face "widespread rights violations".

Citing data from India's National Crime Records Bureau, it said more than 21,000 cases of human rights violations against Dalits were reported last year.

"This vulnerable group continued to suffer discrimination, violence and (lack of) access to justice," Chakma told reporters.

In Sri Lanka, the group said minority Tamils from all walks of life including aid workers and political activists continued to be targeted by security forces and right-wing Sinhalese groups as the ethnic conflict deepens.

The group said the Maldives government was misusing anti-terror laws to crack down on the opposition and that the president of the chain of Indian Ocean islands had "perfected" the art of such misuse.

"President Abdul Maumoon Gayoom remained the judge and the jury and sentenced opposition activists … under terrorism charges," the group said in the statement.

Himalayan Bhutan, known for inventing the concept of "Gross National Happiness" as a measure of national well-being, was called South Asia's "Gulag" for what the ACHR called its denial of political freedom and the violation of the rights of its ethnic Nepali minority.

The report highlights the fate of thousands of Nepalis who left the country and were stripped of their nationality after they complained of racial discrimination and demanded democracy. They live as refugees in eastern Nepal.

"It is a shame that a country which coined 'Gross National Happiness' ironically failed to take any measures in 2005 for the return of its subjects who have been languishing in 'Gross Sadness'," Chakma said in the separate statement.